In a country where it seems everyone is bowling alone these days - to borrow a phrase from sociologist Robert Putnam - there's no shortage of pessimism about the future of communal religious institutions.
The synagogue, like American Jewry itself, has been assailed by the plagues of ignorance, assimilation and a declining population. All of these factors make the business of keeping synagogues alive more difficult than ever. Institutions and rabbis struggle to adapt to an environment in which it's no longer assumed that every Jewish family will choose a synagogue and stay with it for life.
Faced with the competition from noncongregational groups that provide services like Hebrew schools - services that only synagogues once offered - the notion of the shul as the heartbeat of the community has taken a beating. And given the inclination of so many of us to treat synagogues as religious museums we visit two or three times a year, or as Bar/Bat Mitzvah factories, it's little wonder that some think the synagogue is in trouble.
But for all of the factors that justify pessimism, there is one unalterable fact: The synagogue is still the entry-level institution for Jewish life, and the place that maintains the basic infrastructure of that life. Despite the changing times, it remains the heart and soul of Jewish life.
That basic truth is what explains the expansion of synagogues in the outer suburbs, whose populations are booming. But it now also applies to Jews in Center City. Because of new demographics - empty-nesters moving in and young professionals moving up - synagogue life here has been boosted, and capital campaigns are in the works to meet these needs and to keep people in town.
These positive developments ought to remind us of what the pessimists forget. Synagogues succeed because they nurture Jewish families. They are communities of faith and social action that are there for us to live in and build our lives around. The growth of new synagogues and the strengthening of old ones is happening because we need each other - our neighbors and our fellow congregants - to live full Jewish lives. It is there that we can build a Jewish life where learning, acts of lovingkindness and justice can create a community that is open to the nonaffiliated, as well as stay satisfying to those already engaged.
As we approach a new year, let's not forget that supporting our local synagogues isn't an option for the future - it's a necessity.
The Greenhouse Effect
If there is any one act that can serve as a symbol for the shattered hopes for a democratic Palestinian state, it is the sad fate of the greenhouses left behind by Israeli farmers forced to abandon their businesses in Gaza.
Rather than being dismantled like the settlements, the greenhouses were purchased for the Palestinians by American Jewish philanthropists. These wealthy individuals hoped this would allow a thriving agricultural business, which had been carved out of the sand by Israelis, might become an engine for Palestinian prosperity.
But it appears that the Arabs who might have benefited from these greenhouses had other ideas. Along with the remaining synagogue buildings, these structures were smashed by Palestinian mobs, who surged through the settlements after Israel pulled out. For them, destroying any vestige of the Jewish imprint on the land was more important than jobs and the economy.
This story should serve as a wake-up call for the well-intentioned souls who believe that economic development is the key to peace. They need to remember that, for Israel's foes, the hope of prosperity still ranks a distant second to hate. u